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The Lessons of History

Authors: Will and Ariel Durant

Simon and Schuster, 1968

Chapter One: The Durants describe the difficulty in acquiring an accurate understanding of the past, and they end their introductory chapter to a slightly more than one hundred page work with,

...only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed.

The Durants describe history as "an industry, an art and a philosophy ... a search for perspective and enlightenment." They quote themselves: "History smiles at all attempts to force its flow into theoretical patterns or logical grooves; it plays havoc with our generalizations, breaks all our rules; history is baroque." The Durants quote René Sédillot about history having "no sense."

The Durants acknowledge that our knowledge of any past event is always incomplete. The title of this chapter is Hesitations. Why be hesitant to ask a lot of questions and to look for realistic approximate answers? The Durants proceed apparently concerned with "the possibility that history teaches us nothing. "At times we feel so," they write, "and a multitude of doubts assail our enterprise."

Chapter Two: History and Earth

The Durants write,

History is subject to geology ... To the geologic eye all the surface of the earth is a fluid form, and man moves upon it as insecurely as Peter walking on the waves to Christ.

Geography is the matrix of history, its nourishing mother and disciplining home. Its rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans draw settlers to their shores, for water is the life of organism and towns, and offers inexpensive roads for transport and trade.

The chapter also contains this: Let the rain "fall too furiously, and civilization will be choked with jungle, as in Central America. Let the thermal average rise by twenty degrees in our thriving zones (the colder climes that we whites developed our civilization) and we should probably relapse into lethargic savagery." In this book it is the beginning of expressions that appear to some of us in the 21st century as quaint distortions. A visit to Mayan country in Guatemala would not have visited upon one a relapse into lethargy. Nor can Mayan civilization be described as having been plagued by lethargy.

Chapter Three: Biology and History

The Durants: "...the laws of biology are the fundamental lessons of history ... the first biological lesson of history is that life is competition." Co-operation is "a tool and form of competition... War is a nation's way of eating."

This is an overstatement. And where are the lessons? What neuroscientist claim that our biology compels us to compete without choice or to make war without choice. Did hunter-gathers, living in their small and isolated societies, have competition in mind? Can you think of any time in your life when you were cooperating with someone without thoughts of bettering someone else? Were there times when nations fed themselves without war?

The Durants continue:

...every invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker, than before.

Is this what the Durants have learned from history? I prefer the view that the strength of a ruler is dependent to some degree on support of others, the more the better.

In this chapter the Durants write:

In the United States the lower birth rate of the Anglo-Saxons has lessened their economic and political power; and the higher birth rate of Roman Catholic families suggests that by the year 2000 the Roman Catholic Church will be the dominant force in national as well as in municipal or state governments.

Chapter Four: Race and History

The Durants criticize the racism of the 19th century writers Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain and others who belonged to the early 20th century.

The Durants end the following with a reference to their work Our Oriental Heritage, pages 934-38:

The ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece, and Rome were evidently the product of geographical opportunity and economic and political development rather than of racial constitution, and much of their civilization had an Oriental source.

Chapter Five: Character and History

The Durants refer to biological and motivational consistencies across history and make the following simplistic and unrealistic assessment:

... known history shows little alteration in the conduct of mankind. The Greeks of Plato's time behaved very much like the French of modern centuries; and the Romans behaved like the English.

The Durants write about "the initiative individual – 'great man,' the 'hero,' the 'genius' in history." If we are biologically driven and behaving the same across history, where is the individualistic creativity or heroic leadership?

Chapter Six: Morals and History

In describing the lessons they have gathered from reading history, the Durants go on to describe moral codes not as choice but as adjustments to "historical and environmental conditions. They describe moral codes as different in hunting, agriculture and industrial societies. What happened to biological and motivational consistencies of people?

"The Industrial Revolution," they write, "changed the economic form and moral superstructure of European and American life. They write of constraints in people moving from rural to urban living, of "the authority of the test tube over that of the crosier (a bishop's staff)." Then they remind us that "sin has flourished in every civilization, " followed by,

Even our generation has not yet rivaled the popularity of homosexualism in ancient Greece or Rome or Renaissance Italy.

They add:

Perhaps discipline will be restored in our civilization through the military training required by the challenges of war... Sexual license may cure itself through its own excess; our unmoored children may live to see order and modesty become fashionable; clothing will be more stimulating the nudity.